August 17, 2017 Kőln Germany to the Netherlands: the Perils of Strong Drink

We arrived in Kőln at about midnight. I am very sorry to report that by then I was under the influence of strong drink. Too much imbibing at dinner. I was in a sorry condition. It turned out that was a big mistake, because as a result I failed to rouse myself to photograph the famous church at night from the boat. I got a very brief view of the famous cathedral as I happened to wake up from my slumber, and peeked out our window as we glided by it. It was really too late. Had I been in better condition I could have strolled down the street when we anchored for the night and captured a glorious image. I will never forgive myself.

And yet….I fortuitously woke up from my slumber for some incredible reason, and looked out our window, at the exact moment that that our ship glided past the famous Kőln Cathedral. I did not have time to set up my tripod. Besides the ship was moving and that might not have helped, but I had time for one, and only one grab shot of the magnificent cathedral at night. I captured a very blurry image of one of the finest cathedrals in Europe at night. I did not capture a sharp image, but I did capture the ghost of the cathedral or the essence of the cathedral. I got a picture of its skeletal outline or its bones or its pure essence. I love the image I captured. It was a wonder. Perhaps it was a miracle.

After breakfast we went on another walking tour with a local guide Ernst a sharp-tongued cynical German Ernst. Like all our guides, I enjoyed his commentary very much. It is great to have a local guide when you visit a new city for the first time.

This time we visited the city of Kőln (or Cologne if you prefer the English version). I always wonder why people have to change the name of cities or countries to match more closely, or at least phonetically, how they want the name to sound or look in their language. For example, why do some Europeans spell Canada as Kanada? It makes no sense. They could easily use the correct name with the correct spelling. Why not?




Before we saw the cathedral our guide showed us Gross St. Martin a prominent landmark in the city, but it is not old by European standards. The cathedral was completed in 1880 and a year later the city wall was demolished.

As we walked through Old Kőln our guide Ernst reminded us that in ancient times we would have been forced into constant vigilance that women from upper floors of buildings did not discard their garbage or dirty “water” or worse, onto us on the street below. In those days women dumped out their window onto the streets beneath what they wanted to discard even if it came, from the “night pot.”

Ernst drew our attention to the fact that most buildings in Kőln are “fake.” Forget about fake news, these were fake buildings. That is because 90% of the buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and many were replaced by similar buildings that would fit in better, it was thought, with the historical city centre. Ye they were good fakes. For example, as I said earlier I loved Gross St. Martin and was surprised to learn that it was “fake.” It was a good fake. I took a number of photographs of it, before and after I realized it was a fake.


It was very fortunate that the Kőln Cathedral was saved as a result of poor aim of Allied bombers, and some attributed this to God’s will. Why else would it have been spared? Of course, we might ask, why were all the other churches razed and not saved? Did God not like those other churches?


Like so many cities in Europe, Kőln also suffered at the hands of the Allied forces in their efforts to destroy the Nazi led government of Germany.   By the end of World War II 90% of Kőln was destroyed. Amazingly the Cathedral was largely spared.

Ernst, our guide, was pleased to demonstrate to us the incompetence of military combatants. The Allies used the cathedral in the heart of the city, as their target for bombing the city, and, naturally, that meant that it was saved, because the Allies so rarely hit their target! Everything around it except for the cathedral was completely destroyed. It was actually hit 14 times by aerial bombs, but most of them failed to explode, as so much Allied ordinance was a dud. Of course as so often happened with unexploded ordinance, years later children playing in the streets were attracted to it and it frequently exploded in their hands. The Allies They did manage to break many windows, but the structure was intact. Fortunately, locals spirited away the majestic 14th century stained glass from the church before the Nazis realized it. As a result it was spared too. Was that divine intervention? Or was it just another example of the incompetence of war and warriors? I think the latter.

A good example of a building that was not spared was Gross St. Martin. This church was completely destroyed because the Allies did not aim at it. They only aimed at the Cathedral because it was very large and very central, the Allies did not actually want to destroy it. After all, why bother to bomb a church? But it was their target.

The star attraction of Kőln is no doubt the Cathedral. It is a Roman Catholic Cathedral that acts as the seat of the Archbishop of Kőln and of the administration of the Archdiocese of Kőln. It is a world famous monument to German Catholicism and Gothic architecture. It was declared a world heritage site in 1996 and today is Germany’s number one tourist attraction visited by 20,000 people a day. We had an opportunity to visit it briefly, but declined. That was disappointing because it has been said that this cathedral has the finest interior of any church in Europe. However, we were getting tired and wanted to rest and were getting tired of crowds and wanted to avoid them. So we walked around the cathedral a bit, trying to get a good view for a photo and letting us rest a bit.

The Kőln Cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second tallest spires. With its twin towers, it provides the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir has the largest height to width ratio of any medieval church. The medieval church builders wanted a magnificent building to house the dubious relics of the 3 Kings and to fit the place of worship of the Holy Roman Emperor. Only the grand was suitable for the Emperor.

For me traveling is learning.  Today we learned a little bit about Gothic Art. Gothic Architecture is a style of architecture that flourished in Europe during the High and Late Middle Ages. It evolved from Romanesque architecture and was succeeded by Renaissance architecture. It is a style that is most familiar as the style of the great cathedrals, abbeys, and churches of Europe. Many castles, palaces, universities, and town halls also have Gothic style. Gothic Architecture started in 12th century France and lasted up to the 16th century. At the time it was usually called Francigenum (“French work”). Its characteristics include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault that evolved from the joint vaulting of Romanesque architecture) and the flying buttress.

Although many of the great churches and cathedrals were built in this style, some much smaller buildings have embraced this style as well. The style often leads to appeals to the emotions and many of the smaller buildings are considered buildings of distinction. Many of the larger ones are listed with UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

The Cathedral is a world famous example of Gothic art. Gothic art is fascinating. I will never forget my introduction to Gothic Art. That occurred when I watched a spectacular television series called Civilization and it was narrated by Sir Kenneth Clark an erudite commentator. Later I bought the companion book and enjoyed it immensely. It really was my personal introduction to art in particular and even, to some extent to civilization. It was from that occasion that I have developed a life-long interest in civilization. The good and the bad of civilization. It is never an unmixed blessing.

Early on in that wonderful series. Clark stood in front of a magnificent cathedral in France–Chartres. I had never heard of it before. I doubt that I had heard of Gothic art either. Clark saw that cathedral, and other Gothic Cathedral as being “an expression of the Divine Law and an aid to worship and contemplation.” He said, it certainly has this affect on me… this quality of lightness, this feeling of Divine Reason.”

According to Clarke, in Gothic architecture, “The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.” “This was,” as Clark pointed out, “a revolutionary concept in the Middle Ages. It was the intellectual background of all the sublime works of art in the next century and in fact has remained the basis of our belief in the value of art until today.”

Clark the importance of the Gothic style of architecture, was not only the pointed arch, but the lightness of high windows–what we call the clerestory and triforium. ‘Bright,’ he says, ‘is the noble edifice that is pervaded by new light,’ and in these words anticipates all the architectural aspirations of the next two hundred years.” I love that concept, a structure, a work of art that is “pervaded by new light.” That is the magnificence of Gothic Art.

The height of Gothic art, to Clark, and I accept this, although I have not yet seen it, is the Cathedral at Chartres. Clark marvels at how it is permanent. Remember that is Clark’s benchmark of what is civilization. To the medieval man geometry was a divine activity. God was the great geometer, and this inspired the architect.

We must remember, that to the medieval thinkers geometry was the instrument to explore the mind of God. And architecture–in particular what was later called Gothic architecture–was the manifestation in materials of the mind of God. What an astounding concept. Clark said that in Gothic architecture with its vault and arch the architect “he could make stone seem weightless: the weightless expression of his spirit.” This was an astonishing achievement–to make a stone building seem spirit–i.e. to make it spiritual–part of the very mind of God. That summed up Gothic art.

In many ways, Clark sees the construction of the gothic Cathedrals of Europe as the birth of European civilization. Our intellectual energy, our contact with the great minds of Greece, our ability to move and change, our belief that God may be approached through beauty, our feeling of compassion, our sense of the unity of Christendom–all this, and much more, appeared in those hundred marvelous years in the 12th and 13th centuries.

It fascinates me that the Cathedral of Kőln stood incomplete for so long. The work was halted in 1473, leaving the south tower incomplete but crowned with a huge crane that remained in place as a landmark of the Kőln skyline for 400 years! Intermittently some work was done on the structure of the nave between the west front and eastern arm, but during the 16th century construction stopped completely. I would say, it stopped until the local regained their sense of confidence.

In the 19th century encouraged by the discovery of the original plans and with the commitment of the Protestant Prussian Court to complete the cathedral. Through civic effort that was achieved. The state actually saw this as a way to improve relations with its large component of Catholic subjects it had gained in 1815. Imagine that!

The new unified country of Germany celebrated the completion on August 14 1880, 632 years after construction had begun. It was the tallest building in the world for 4 years until those darn Americans completed the Washington Monument.

In 1996 the Kőln cathedral was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, but sadly, in 2004 it was placed on the World Heritage in Danger List.” In fact it was at the time the only western site in danger, because of plans for a high-rise building near by. That would have visually impacted the site that is already visually impacted by other structures in the area. Most of those other structures are ancient, but some of them were depressingly modern. It is not enough to get a building or an area listed; it must then be protected. In 2006 the building was removed from the site of endangered buildings list because the local authorities wisely decided to limit the heights of near by buildings.

During the evening we travelled 17 Km down a canal from the Rhine River that we had cruised for more than a week all the way to the city of Amsterdam. This was the end of our cruise, though we still had one more day on board and then 3 days in Paris and 3 days in London.


Leave a Reply